Celebrating the Life of Loonkiito
“Legends are not born, they are created” – Alexander D. Jones
Nearly two decades ago, in 2004, two male lion cubs were born in the heart of Kenya’s Amboseli ecosystem. As the little cubs matured into sub-adults, they embarked on a journey of exploration, venturing beyond the familiarity of their home to discover the vast expanse of community lands beyond the national park. The cubs began to climb the social ladder of the lion world. This is where Loonkiito’s story begins.
At Lion Guardians, we began following and tracking the cubs as they traveled across the Maasai community lands. We witnessed the cubs grow into powerful and resilient males, their mighty roars echoing across the lands as they marked their territory and lured in lionesses. The Guardians – traditional Maasai warriors, skilled trackers, and valued community members employed by Lion Guardians – decided to name one of them Loonkiito, as the brothers loved to reside in a community area known as Enkiito. The other brother was named Ambogga.
To their human neighbors, Loonkiito and Ambogga were generally known as well-behaved lions that didn’t cause many disturbances for the communities. However, these lion males did prove to be formidable adversaries to their male counterparts. Loonkiito and Ambogga boldly confronted and successfully overthrew the reigning pride male, securing dominance over prime territory in Amboseli. Subsequently, they reveled in years of abundance, sharing plentiful meals with lionesses within their pride and siring many offspring. After many fruitful years as the reigning males, Loonkiito and Ambogga’s partnership ended in 2017 when Ambogga was killed in a fight with other lions. Given the formidable strength of the new male coalitions in the area and Loonkiito’s advanced age of 13 years, we anticipated that he might meet the same sad fate as his brother. We were wrong.
Loonkiito continued to oversee the pride and exceeded expectations many times over. As the land and the people rapidly changed due to extreme drought and other climatic changes, he adapted time and time again – embodying resilience at a time of rapid transformation. Even when he could no longer hunt independently, he persisted in mating opportunities, and when left to fend for himself, he skillfully adapted to catching fish for survival. We observed how in Loonkiito’s last years of life, his youngest son, Ng’erbes, returned to him and began caretaking his elderly father. We also observed how his older son, who is now a pride male in Amboseli, gave Loonkiito access to freshly hunted food, allowing him to eat before all the other pride members.
In recent months, Loonkiito found himself in a precarious situation, seemingly living on borrowed time. The prolonged, severe drought created favorable conditions for lions, as weakened prey were easily available. Additionally, the invaluable support from his son further enhanced his ability to secure easy meals. Therefore, when the drought broke earlier this year, and wild prey became harder to catch, Loonkiito’s life became much harder. He became exceptionally thin and weak. Despite his reputation for avoiding bomas (livestock enclosures), in Loonkiito’s final moments, he resorted to a desperate search for food in a community boma. He entered a livestock corral located just outside the national park on Kimana Group Ranch, where he was, unfortunately, speared during the night by the homestead owners acting in self-defense to safeguard their livestock and human lives.
Loonkiito sitting near a water source as the drought breaks in Kenya with consistent rainfall – March 2023
In January 2023, we celebrated Loonkiito’s 19th birthday. To our knowledge, this made him the world’s oldest lion in the wild. At Lion Guardians, we feel privileged to have witnessed and worked to protect the life of this legend. We are honored to continue to work hard to safeguard his legacy that lives on in the fast-changing Amboseli ecosystem.
Thank you, Loonkiito, for the memories and lessons you taught us. You live on in our hearts and minds.
All images: Philip J. Briggs @philip.j.briggs.photography